Germain Pilon

Germain Pilon (ca. 1535-1590) was the leading French sculptor of his time. Trained in the Italianate mode of Fontainebleau, he developed an independent style that combined realism and emotional intensity.

Germain Pilon, the son of a mason, was born in Paris. He may have been a pupil of the sculptor Pierre Bontemps. The Italian painter and designer Francesco Primaticcio constituted a more important influence on Pilon's early work. In 1560 Pilon worked for Primaticcio on the monument for the heart of Henry II (now in the Louvre, Paris). The Three Graces that support the urn transcend the formal elegance of design and cool, graceful figures of the Fontainebleau school in their beautifully manipulated draperies and intelligent, piquant faces. By 1561 Pilon was active at Fontainebleau, where he carved four wooden statues of classical figures for the Queen's garden.

Between 1563 and 1570, under Primaticcio's initial direction, Pilon executed the monumental tomb of Henry II and Catherine de Médicis in the Valois chapel at Saint-Denis. This tomb is at once grander and more somber in its elaborate sculptural program than the monument for Henry II's heart. Above the tomb of Henry II and Catherine are the kneeling bronze figures of the King and Queen garbed in all the regal splendor of their robes of state; they are in dramatic contrast to the recumbent marble figures of the sovereigns poignantly shown as nearly naked corpses below. The lower part of the tomb has four standing bronze figures of Virtues and a series of bas-reliefs in marble and bronze.

In 1570 Pilon was named sculptor to the king, Charles IX. No large-scale work survives from the 1570s, when Pilon was chiefly active making a distinguished series of portrait busts and medals of royal and noble personages. One of his strongest characterizations, the bronze bust of Jean de Morvilliers, foreshadows the incisive portrait of Chancellor René de Birague a decade later. This later portrait belonged to one of the two major projects that engaged Pilon in the 1580s: the continued work for the Valois chapel in Saint-Denis and tombs for the Birague family chapel in Ste-Catherine du Val-des-Ecoliers, Paris.

The sculpture that remains from Pilon's work for the Valois chapel shows an astonishing range, from the almost Spanish emotionalism of the St. Francis (now in the church of SS. Jean et François, Paris), to the Michelangelesque breadth of the Risen Christ (in the church of SS. Paul et Louis, Paris), to the formal grace of the marble Sorrowing Madonna (in the Louvre). The painted terra-cotta model for this Madonna is more personal and expressive, recalling the austere dignity of the Virgin of the famous Avignon Pietà.

Pilon's tombs for the Birague family were largely destroyed in the French Revolution, but the portions that remain (now in the Louvre) show his full powers as a sculptor in their assured characterizations of the praying chancellor and the more delicate interpretation of his wife, Valentine Balbiani. The jewellike precision of her costume and the gaiety of the supporting angels make all the more haunting the ravaged features of her cadaver carved in low relief at the base of the tomb. The bronze relief of the Deposition was also executed for the Birague chapel.

Pilon died in Paris on Feb. 3, 1590. He left no followers capable of carrying forward his expressive late style, but his carefully wrought earlier portraits continued to serve as models for later generations of sculptors.

Further Reading on Germain Pilon

The most important sources on Pilon are in French. Anthony Blunt, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (1954; 2d ed. 1970), includes an appreciative and thoughtful account of Pilon and his contemporaries.